Sunderland made two changes following Tuesday night’s 2-2 draw with second placed Peterborough at the Stadium of Light. The first of these changes was forced as Bryan Oviedo started his three match suspension; his place went to former Wigan man Reece James. The only other change saw Lee Cattermole return following his own ban, forcing Dylan McGeouch out of midfield.
Both changes were straight swaps for Sunderland as Jack Ross again employed the 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 formation that was used against The Posh. The penalty saving Jon McLaughlin retained his place in goal, ahead of the Scot was Adam Matthews, Tom Flanagan, Jack Baldwin and the aforementioned James. Max Power was Cattermole’s midfield partner with Chris Maguire on the right and Aiden McGeady on the left. Josh Maja and Jerome Sinclair were both looking to add to their goals from midweek.
Bradford City came into the game off the back of a one-nil victory at AFC Wimbledon, also on Tuesday night. Manager David Hopkin made two changes for the visit of Jack Ross’ promotion hopefuls, David Ball and Jack Payne came in for Jim O’Brien and Kai Brunker.
These changes meant that Bradford also lined up in a 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 formation. Richard O’Donnell started in goal with a defence of Kelvin Mellor, Ryan McGowan, Anthony O’Connor and Lewis O’Brien in front of him. David Ball and Connor Wood started in the centre of the park, flanked by former Huddersfield winger Sean Scannell on the right and Nathaniel Knight-Percival on the left. Up top Jack Payne started just behind George Miller.
4-4-2 makes it easier to defend the flanks
For many, recent memories of Sunderland side’s playing 4-4-2 will be Simon Grayson’s decision to shorten the pitch and lump long balls up to a striker, in Lewis Grabban, who didn’t challenge for headers. However, Jack Ross’ recent switch to the old-school formation has led to the complete opposite of long-ball football.
On Tuesday night, Sunderland’s new formation clearly solved some of their problems in an attacking sense - especially the extra striker in support of Josh Maja - and at Valley Parade this was again evident, but also on show was the defensive strengths of the formation.
First of all, Adam Matthews has arguably put in his best two performances of the season since Jack Ross moved away from his 3-5-2. It is well known that Matthews is better going forward than he is in defence, and it is no coincidence that his best performances have been when he has been allowed to overlap the winger - in this case Chris Maguire who likes to drift inside.
Oviedo’s red card against Peterborough saw Reece James come in at left back, behind Aiden McGeady. The former Wigan man put in a solid performance and was, naturally more defensive than the Costa Rican. This should suit McGeady in the long-term, although the Irishman had one of his off days at Valley Parade, and make Sunderland stronger at the back as McGeady rarely tracks back.
Sunderland controlled the game on Saturday for long periods, as they did in the first half against Peterborough, and this indicates that the new formation is helping Sunderland to be more dominant with and without the ball.
What about George Honeyman?
It has not escaped the attention of many that Sunderland’s improved performances in the last week have been without captain George Honeyman. His detractors will claim that it is no coincidence and his supporters will claim it is. I’m going to be diplomatic and claim it’s a bit of both.
In my opinion, the recent good performances are mainly down to the change to 4-4-2 and the introduction of Jerome Sinclair as a physical presence up front. This does, however, still mean there is no longer an obvious position for Honeyman.
The main option would be in place of one of the wide players, and I would imagine this is where he will play against Carlisle in the Checkatrade Trophy in midweek - in place of McGeady who has only recently returned from injury. This is where Honeyman started the season well last year and given how frequently Sunderland’s wingers drift inside, should be a position the academy graduate would be comfortable with.
The other option would be in place of Josh Maja - although this is only likely to happen if the striker gets injured. This would require Honeyman to score more goals and become more of a threat in the opposition box, rather than his current skill set which is centred around his work rate.
No matter where he ends up playing, George Honeyman may have to wait a while before he gets another opportunity to regain his place, and when the opportunity comes he’ll have to take it with both hands.
The win against Bradford highlighted the strength of character this Sunderland side has, and when this is coupled with Sunderland’s superior players, the Black Cats will be a tough side to beat for other league one clubs.
Good performances in the last two games give Sunderland the chance to build some momentum and start the climb into the promotion places. The injuries on Tuesday meant that Jack Ross somehow stumbled upon a successful formation. The performance at Valley Parade backed this up and now Sunderland have to be ruthless in the next few games in order to make a statement to the rest of League One that they are the team to beat this season.